"The world's most aggressive primate just got mad"
Professor Sorenson, the head of a university med school, has been experimenting on baboons to try and reduce their aggression. His latest test subject is a baboon called Shakma who wakes up from surgery even more vicious than ever before thanks to the drugs used. Sorenson orders the animal to be destroyed but, desperate to finish their work for the day, his students just tranquilise it and leave it in the laboratory before the join the professor for a live-action roleplaying game which is regularly held inside the building. However, once they are locked in, Shakma awakens and escapes, killing off anyone trapped inside.
Shakma is basically a slasher film which stars a killer baboon instead of a guy-in-a-mask. That’s the easiest way I can sum up this random little horror from 1990 which I’d never heard of until it recently made its way onto Prime. Even then, as someone who has gorged on hundreds of low budget creature features and slashers over the years, it takes something interesting and fresh to excite me nowadays. Usually when films are decent genre offerings, they develop a cult following so even if they’re hard to track down, you’ve still heard of them. But as far as Shakma goes, nope – never heard of it at all.
I’m going to dive straight in and say that Shakma’s main plot device of having the characters play out some LARP inside the tower was utterly preposterous and nearly ruined the film before it gets going. These are college kids, who should be more preoccupied with drinking, sex and drugs at their age than playing some geeky Dungeon and Dragons live action game with their elderly professor. Using an old computer program, pretending to be wizards and key masters, dressing up as princesses and speaking to each other through walkie talkies comes across as being the worst game anyone could dream of playing. I’m not sure I can even fathom just how lame and nerdy these characters appear to be, even the older professor who is loving every second of being the big almighty dungeon master. I know it makes a change from having the characters sneaking off to have sex with each other, but this is ridiculous. This plot device is little more than a weak filler to pad out the film before the animal gets loose and believe me, you’ll get sick of seeing the characters ambling around aimlessly, trying to unlock doors to progress to the next level of the game. And it nearly derails the film before it has chance to pick up steam.
However, this tragic build-up is massively saved by the ensuing carnage. I’m not joking when I say this film has one of the best about-turns I can remember. Far from the horror pay-off being even worse than the set-up, it’s surprisingly good and surprisingly bleak and depressing. The saving grace for Shakma is that the titular star is actually a real baboon, named Typhoon. When they’re all docile and just sat around in an enclosure in a zoo, they look harmless enough but like any primates, when they’re riled up, they can go into a vicious frenzy. Typhoon is a real baboon, handled by a professional animal trainer on set, which makes for a much more believable and effective threat if you actually know that the animal was living and breathing amongst the cast (though you couldn’t have paid me enough to start wrestling with an aggressive baboon in the way the stuntmen do here). Typhoon goes from nought to one hundred on the psycho scale within a few seconds, hurtling himself into locked doors and smashing the set up (a lot of what was filmed was actually him smashing the set up so they just kept it in the film). There are some great shots of Typhoon walking into shot at the far end of a corridor before charging towards the camera, screaming and snarling with teeth bared. He’s the real star of the show.
Reportedly, the cast and crew were terrified of Typhoon and it’s easy to see why. Several of the baboon attacks are really violent and the sequences themselves are filmed and edited in a way to seamlessly blend the real baboon with the practical effects. Made today and this would all be done with CGI, taking away some of the obvious threat, menace and intensity that the film offers up. Shakma serves up a decent number of bodies, as there’s plenty of potential victims walking around inside the building. The gore is plentiful, though mainly confined to the many mangled corpses the survivors find around the building. To be honest, the film doesn’t need the gore as the attack action is that believable that the audience doesn’t need to see the results to imagine them.
Amanda Wyss is probably most famous for playing Tina, Freddy Krueger’s first victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and it’s not like Shakma did anything to help her career take off. But you can tell she’s legitimately scared in some scenes as the baboon leaps and lunges at her. Co-star Christopher Atkins has a permanently gormless expression on his face throughout but the two of them share some decent chemistry. In fact most of the characters are likeable enough and whilst we don’t get to spend much time with some of them, they’re not just the bland one-note fodder from similar genre films. Roddy McDowall is the token genre name here and I’m sure there was a purpose to having a man famous for his involvement in the Planet of the Apes franchise taking on a killer primate. He’s not in the film for long but his presence adds some much-needed gravitas to proceedings.
Shakma is a hugely underrated little gem of a horror film that I’m glad I stumbled upon. A little low budget and a little short on pacing to begin with, Shakma kicks into gear and delivers plenty for horror fans. It won’t end up on your top ten lists but there are some genuinely good moments here courtesy of the star of the show.
Director(s): Hugh Parks, Tom Logan
Writer(s): Roger Engle
Actor(s): Christopher Atkins, Amanda Wyss, Ari Meyers, Roddy McDowall, Robb Morris
Duration: 97 mins